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March 14, 2011

Arkansas looks to keep moving forward

Even though Arkansas didn't win the SEC West last season, the Razorbacks wrapped up their best season as an SEC member in nearly every other measure.

The Hogs finished the season with their highest rankings since 1988 and won 10 games for just the second time since 1989. Though Arkansas lost in the Sugar Bowl, the Razorbacks played in their most prominent bowl since the Cotton Bowl after the '89 season.

Arkansas' record has improved every season under coach Bobby Petrino -- from 5-7 to 8-5 to 10-3 -- but the foundation Petrino has built will be put to the test in 2011.

The Razorbacks return 12 combined offensive and defensive starters and lost strong-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett. Arkansas has high hopes for new QB Tyler Wilson. While he showed some encouraging signs in limited duty last season, his success may depend on how Arkansas' offensive line develops.

Here's a look at Arkansas as the Hogs head into spring practice.

Greg Childs is among many talented wide receivers for Arkansas.
Coach: Bobby Petrino
Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 in the SEC West. Lost 31-26 to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Spring dates: March 15-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (5): G Alvin Bailey, WR Greg Childs, RB Knile Davis, C Travis Swanson, WR Jarius Wright.
Defense (7): E Jake Bequette, T Alfred Davis, LB Jerry Franklin, T DeQuinta Jones, CB Isaac Madison, LB Jerico Nelson, S Tramain Thomas.
Special teams (2): P Dylan Breeding, K Zach Hocker.
Positions of strength

Arkansas returns perhaps the best receiving corps in the SEC. Greg Childs is expected to be healthy after missing the final five games of 2010 with a knee injury. Even without its top receiver, the unit held its own late last season. With Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas has enviable depth at the position. At running back, Knile Davis was seldom-used through the first four games of the season but gradually saw more time. After Childs was hurt, Davis was the one who picked up the slack with 770 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the final five games. The defensive returns four tackles and an end who started at least once last season. E Jake Bequette led the team with seven sacks.

Help is needed

Ryan Mallett declared early for the NFL draft, and the Razorbacks hope they have a successor ready in Tyler Wilson. When Mallett suffered a head injury in the first half against Auburn, Wilson was 25-of-34 for 332 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. But that was his only real playing time of the season. Two offensive linemen -- G Alvin Bailey and C Travis Swanson -- were solid as freshmen, but the unit must replace both starting tackles and a starting guard. Arkansas is looking for depth in the back seven of the defense. Despite returning starters at linebacker (Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson) and defensive back (Tramain Thomas[/db), the Razorbacks may need to look to freshmen to plug the holes.

3 guys to watch

S Eric Bennett: He saw immediate playing time as a freshman last season, recording 15 tackles as a reserve cornerback. He moves to safety this spring, and there is a starting slot open.

TE Chris Gragg: Arkansas had one of the nation's best tight ends in D.J. Williams last season. Gragg, a junior, saw limited playing time last season, but he made the most of it. Two of his eight catches went for touchdowns, including a 57-yarder against Georgia.

CB Darius Winston: A five-star prospect in the 2009 class, Winston earned spot starting duty last season. With depth concerns in the secondary, Arkansas needs him to lock down a starting spot.

The pressure is on

OTs Grant Freeman and Anthony Oden: Arkansas is counting on two former four-star prospects to fill the holes at offensive tackle. Oden started one game as a freshman in 2009 but missed last season with mononucleosis. Freeman played tight end in high school and has spent the past three seasons as a backup tackle. Both have size on their side -- Oden is 6-8 and 328 pounds, while Freeman is 6-7 and 305.

The buzz

The knee-jerk reaction might be that Arkansas will experience a big drop-off without Mallett. Indeed, he was the major reason the Razorbacks won 18 games in the past two seasons. But if Wilson can play like the quarterback who passed for 332 yards against Auburn, Arkansas has the skill-position players to be one of the SEC's top offenses. The question marks during the spring are elsewhere -- along the offensive line and in the defensive back seven. Ultimately, those will decide where the Hogs finish in the SEC West race.

Trey Biddy of HawgSports.com contributed to this report.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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